progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

A proud Digital Bennite writes


Tony Benn has gone to the great tearoom in the sky.

"As a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour Government. Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes is minuscule.

"This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure. The lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains, in essence, intact.

"If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum."

Tony Benn, Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-67

I wrote the following in an article for Novara Media a few months back:


Digital Bennism and the death of the party-form
The polarisation of the Labour Party during the late seventies and early eighties involved a turn by activists towards “resolutionary socialism” – if reforms could not be won through the workplace or through a Labour Party which refused to implement its own programme for government, then the party would have to be democratised. It was a struggle which saw a number of leading Labour parliamentarians break with the party to form the SDP, funded by the capitalist David Sainsbury, who served as a minister under Blair and who now funds the Progress faction – but not Labour itself.
During Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, there were whispers of Bennism by those who opposed what Lord Mandelson termed a return to a pre-New Labour formation. But despite talk of reforming the party to give members a greater say, there’s now no immediate potential for what one Labour group leader called “digital Bennites” to win democratic reforms to the party’s governance.
The “Refounding Labour” consultation in 2011 ended up gifting greater power to the party’s leader in parliament, abolishing elections to the shadow cabinet and creating a new form of membership in the “registered supporter”. It’s for this reason that Labour activists, and even some councillors, are turning to contentious forms of politics – from street protests to direct action.
The experiment with a form of guarded “liquid democracy” in the Your Britain website appears to have failed as a result of this disbelief in party consultation exercises. From personal experience, it seems that more time is spent by Labour members agitating and organising online than responding to party reports on policy. And this is largely outside the formal structures – using social media sites rather than the official Labour website.
Many members do not take up opportunities to participate in the party’s policy consultations because they know their ideas alone can’t make change come about. This is why digital Bennism, though Labour-supporting, appears to be primarily focused on activity outside the formal structures of the party – it remains to be seen if a Red Labour formation, articulating the ideas which appeal to a majority of party members and supporters, can cohere into a force capable of influencing the parliamentary leadership. Initiatives aimed at defending the collective trades union link and building support for extra-parliamentary movements could be the basis for a Red Labour revival. In any case, contentious political activity appears to offer more immediate opportunities to build and wield power.
Building a social movement base
The long-term future for the trades union movement lies not in the “new realism” of the 1980s and 1990s, in which union leaders pursued a policy of managed decline through a shift to a service model, but in the organising model of social movement trades unionism.
There is a debate to be had be around how a generation of anti-capitalists schooled in a networked culture relate to those legacy organisations (such as unions and parties created in very different socio-economic conditions) which are seeking active members to ostensibly carry on the mission. It will also concern the approach taken towards elective positions within the capitalist state – can horizontal movements flatten the hierarchy of electoral parties? Can “non-reformist reforms” – such as the abolition of anti-union laws or the establishment of a basic income guarantee, for example – be implemented through a parliament entrenched within the capitalist state?
In his article “Burn up not out”, Aaron Peters argues that we can learn from the shift in the US from the socially conservative positioning of Bush to the cultural pluralism of Obama. This is obviously not about imitating the US Democratic Party, but emulating the work which nurtured a social movement base. The recommendations Aaron makes for the UK labour and social movements are:
1) Fund-raising: “an organisation, where community, media and mutual aid groups can raise money. If done effectively there is no reason why this would not take a great deal of charitable donations currently being advanced to frequently ineffective and sclerotic social movement organisations and third sector actors. For the anti-capitalist and union movements to not have a disintermediated funding network limits our ability to have sufficiently well-resourced organisations. This would be a relatively low-cost effort which would require several full time staff at most. If done effectively it would change the landscape for potentially thousands of organisations seeking to fight austerity, neo-liberalism, capitalism and authoritarianism(s).” Example: ActBlue.
2) Leadership and Building Skills: “where large numbers of people come together to discuss and learn about community organising and how to use specific tools”. Example: New Organizing Institute. I’d argue that, given sufficient pressure from below and resources from above, something like the NOI could be established out of the work the People’s Assemblies are doing in bringing people together from trades unions and community groups. Some trade unions realise that the organising approach is the only sustainable path – for example, Unite’s community membership scheme.
3) Social Events: “where people could get to know one another offline, where ‘newbies’ could discuss politics with others outside of formally hierarchical settings, where people could have fun, and where thin ties that characterise social networks built up over digital fora become thick ones. [...] Again, given the low costs of creating this kind of online space – which might only require 2-3 full and part-time staff – such an organisation commends itself.” Example: Drinking Liberally.
4) Independent Communication Channels: “organisations that seek to combine the best of the old and the new; creating quality, user-led content that receives high levels of feedback and co-creation from viewers/ listeners [...] Media hubs that created television, written and audio content and that could, during heightened episodes of contention, provide information and feedback to movements as well as extending their grievances and solutions to the wider population, would be of major practical benefit.” Examples include Project Syndicate and The Stream.
The efforts that Peters describes would provide the ability for what Andre Gorz termed “non-reformist reforms” to be articulated as long-term goals. In his book Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright puts forward four examples of activity which go beyond electoral and trade union campaigning: experiments in participatory budgeting in local government, cultivation of the digital commons, construction of federated worker co-operatives, and agitation for the right to an unconditional basic income.